Bloodied feet, outrageous breasts and the sinister power of a hair cut: a history of the body

Joanna Bourke reveals how society’s attitudes to seven body parts have evolved over the centuries

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The battle for the breasts of America

On 21 June 1986, seven American women were arrested for being topless in a park in Rochester, New York. They had been protesting against a law that criminalised topless women but not topless men. In court, Judge Walz ruled that the state was right to require that “the female breast not be exposed in public places” because “community standards… regard the female breast as an intimate part of the human body”. Since “community standards” did “not deem the exposure of males’ breasts offensive”, the judge concluded, men were permitted to wander about shirtless. In other words, women’s breasts were offensive; men’s were not.

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Men and women model bathing suits, c1935
Men and women model bathing suits that have been approved by the local chief-of-police, Wisconsin, 1935. (Photo by Angus B. McVicar/Wisconsin Historical Society/Getty Images)

It was not always like that. Male nipples used to be as shocking as female ones. Indeed, it was illegal for men in America to expose their breasts in public. From the early 1930s, men on beaches in Coney Island, Westchester and Atlantic City began to protest. Male swimmers stripped off their shirts and nipple-covering swimsuits. They were derided, called “gorillas”, fined and threatened with arrest. One magistrate rebuked them with the words: “All of you fellows may be Adonises but there are many people who object to seeing so much of the human body exposed.” By the end of the decade, though, the “Adonises” had won the right to flaunt their breasts.

Men who stripped off their nipple-covering swimsuits were called “gorillas”, fined and threatened with arrest

This is not because women’s breasts are significantly different from male ones. At birth, the breasts of both girls and boys are the same. Adult women tend to have larger breasts than men, but many men have large breasts and many women small ones. Both male and female breasts consist of tissue, fat deposits, pectoral muscles and mammary glands. Both have a similar number of nerve endings and degree of ‘erectile capacity’. Male nipples are clearly erogenous. Given the right hormones, men can breastfeed. Indeed, they have. Clearly, rules about public indecency and bodily freedoms are gendered.

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When stomach pain was all the rage

The chances are you rarely notice your stomach. Only when assaulted by the physical pain of peptic ulcers or the social pain of obesity do most people pay attention to this much-ignored organ.

In earlier centuries, however, anatomists, doctors and ‘alienists’ (now called psychiatrists) took stomachs very seriously indeed. Some even believed that mental illnesses originated in the ‘epigastric’ area of the body. As the late 18th-century doctor Philippe Pinel argued, insanity started in the stomach region, before “radiating” throughout the body.

It was a view popularised in The Dublin Penny Journal, which informed readers in 1836 that people possessed two “internal monitors”: one was “seated in the mind, the other in the stomach”.

A man is assailed by the “fatal effects of gluttony” in a lithograph from 1830
A man is assailed by the “fatal effects of gluttony” in a lithograph from 1830. By now, writes Joanna Bourke, “stomachs were thought to be profoundly sensitive to modern life”. (Image by Shutterstock)

During this period, British doctors also worried that stomach ailments such as dyspepsia or indigestion were very ‘British’ afflictions. According to The Dublin Penny Journal, these were exacerbated by the typical “English breakfast of tea, sugar, milk and bread”, which was “especially prone to undergo spontaneous fermentation” within the stomach. In order to be cured, sufferers were told to “rise from your down bed, leave your fire-side, walk, ride, inhale the sea-breeze, fly to the mountains – do this, and you may… eat toasted cheese like a Welshman”.

Is it any surprise, then, that stomach disturbances became far more prevalent? They even overtook ‘nerves’ as the cause of everyday woes. This was because stomachs were said to be profoundly sensitive to modern life: coffee, spicy foods and alcohol consumption caused the “jaded organ” to crave “more food than can conveniently be digested”.

The problem was that little was actually known about the stomach. By what mechanism was food digested? Why did some people develop stomach ulcers while others seemed immune? An article in The New Bon Ton Magazine in 1819 quipped that the term “bilious” was simply a polite way of referring to “those who were formerly flatulent”. However, debilitating ailments of the stomach were big business for doctors, including disreputable ‘quack’ ones, who advertised weird and wonderful products designed to calm this disruptive organ.


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How the clitoris emerged from the shadows

There is a common myth that, in the west, the clitoris has been repressed, denied and derided. Female sexual pleasures have taken second place to the male variety.

But things are more complicated. Scientists and doctors in the west were often ignorant of the anatomical features of the clitoris. For example, many believed that the clitoris was a female version of the male penis. These debates circled around ‘penis-vagina’ (Galenic) versus the ‘penis-clitoris’ (Hippocratic) models.

In the Galenic account, the vagina was an inverted or ‘inside-out’ penis. In contrast, the Hippocratic account posited the clitoris as a female phallus. In both cases, women’s genitals were versions of male ones, but the Hippocratic model allowed for female pleasure similar to that of men. The vagina in the Galen model was passive and sex was reproductive; in the Hippocratic model, however, clitoral orgasm was necessary for conception in a similar way that male ejaculation was necessary if a woman was to conceive. This had major repercussions for women who were raped: if a woman claiming to have been raped became pregnant, this was proof of orgasm. Her ‘pleasure’ signalled her consent.

An abstract photograph of the African desert. One doctor famously compared the clitoris to an “electric bell”. (Image by Shutterstock)
An abstract photograph of the African desert. One doctor famously compared the clitoris to an “electric bell”. (Image by Shutterstock)

Discussions of the clitoris were tied to questions of female health. From the late 19th century to the 1950s, doctors were much more worried about female ‘frigidity’ than their orgasmic capacities. Rather than ignoring the clitoris, American doctors acknowledged the importance of that organ. Back in the 1830s, readers of marriage manuals were told that the clitoris was the “seat of venereal pleasure” and one doctor famously compared the clitoris to “an electric bell”, maintaining that it was the “chief seat of sexual excitement”.

Feminists pointed out that the glands of the clitoris contain twice as many nerve fibres as the penis

Many doctors in America, Britain and continental Europe surgically modified clitorises. These operations were often motivated by a desire to increase female pleasure during penetrative sex with husbands. They were procedures to ensure that women submit to a heterosexual, reproductive-focused idea of what constitutes ‘good sex’.

Medical texts continue to depict the clitoris as a diminutive penis. Second-wave feminism from the 1970s challenged such views, pointing out that the glands of the clitoris contains 8,000 nerve fibres (twice the number in the penis). Sadly, even today, young people know a great deal more about the penis than the clitoris.


4

The painful quest for the perfect foot

“There’s blood all over, and her foot’s too small… She’s not the bride you met at the ball.”

In the 1857 version of Cinderella by the Brothers Grimm, the malevolent step-sisters’ plans to marry the prince are undone by the size of their feet. As two pigeons perching in a hazel tree reveal to the prince, the sisters’ feet are too big for the golden slipper. When their mother reassures them that ”Once you become queen, you won’t have to walk anymore”, one sister cuts off her heel while the other amputates a toe.

In contrast, Cinderella’s foot is perfect in size and form. Her foot is proof of her ‘natural’ superiority and her perfect ‘fit’ with the prince.

The Grimms were far from the first to draw a line connecting the size and shape of the foot to its owner’s moral fibre; in fact, commentators have claimed to be able to diagnose character from human feet for centuries.

Podoscopy, or the physiognomy of the feet, was promoted by an author signing himself “Philopedes” (Greek for ‘friend of the foot’). In 1825, Philopedes contended that “if you may know a man from the bumps on his skull, the wrinkles on his face, or the characters of his hand-writing, so you may know him from the shape and outline of his FEET”. He maintained that anyone looking at a “capacious, full-grown and well-formed FOOT” would see the “plainest indications of a vigorous and masculine understanding”. After exclaiming “What eloquence in the bold sinew, in the strong tendon!” he asked, “Can such a FOOT be given to a sluggard?”

Versions of Philopedes’s physiognomy of the foot include podomancy (or solistry), a form of divination based on the analysis of the lines on the sole of a person’s foot. Foot reflexology similarly claims that specific areas on the soles of the feet ‘reflect’ organs or body parts elsewhere. By applying pressure to those areas of the feet, diseases and other ailments can be cured.


5

How the penis made men weep

The penis could be an uncertain and erratic organ. In 19th-century Britain and America, masculine anxieties were provoked by the spread of a new and invidious (though phantom) disease: spermatorrhea, or the excessive, involuntary discharge of sperm. It was believed to be caused by masturbation or self-pollution, as well as indulgence in all things sexual. It was also a disease of civilisation, disproportionately plaguing urban professionals. Although women might serve as temptresses, spermatorrhea was fundamentally the fault of men themselves.

An illustration from 1845 shows a man suffering from the ill-effects of excessive ‘self-pollution’. (Image by Shutterstock)
An illustration from 1845 shows a man suffering from the ill-effects of excessive ‘self-pollution’. (Image by Shutterstock)

As a vital fluid, even a refined form of blood, the seeping away of semen was thought to be extremely debilitating. As an anonymous Victorian gentleman calling himself Walter wrote in his memoir, My Secret Life, he was warned that ”You look ill… you‘ve been frigging yourself… I can see it in your face, you‘ll die in a mad-house, or of consumption.” Spermatorrhea led to constipation, ‘nerves‘, flabbiness and impotence. It made men weepy and weak – like women, in fact.

Businessmen saw a way to make a ‘quick buck’ from penile performance anxieties and impotence

Cures for spermatorrhea could be as distressing as the ailment itself. Doctors recommended everything from leeches and laxatives to blistering of the penis, dilation of the anus and encompassing the penis in a urethral ring containing sharp ‘teeth‘. On the gentler side, they proposed outdoor exercise, gymnastics and cold baths.

Panics about excessive discharges of sperm occurred at the same time as fears of insufficient flows. Businessmen and medical practitioners keen to earn a ‘quick buck’ have long seen a way to make money from penile performance anxieties and impotence. They marketed products entitled ‘Aromatic Lozenges of Steel’ or ‘Elixir of Life’. The association of Mormons with polygamy encouraged the labelling of aphrodisiacs called ‘Mormon Bishop Pills’ and ‘Brigham Young Tablets’. Ingenious devices were also promoted which promised to strengthen or lengthen penises.

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The oppressive power of a hair cut

In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal was exposed for having lied about being of African American heritage. Crucial to her ‘passing’ as black was the way she styled her hair in long dreadlocks, weaves and box braids. Even one of her critics had to admit that she “definitely nailed the hair, I’ll give her that”.

In May 2019, Anna Sorokin (alias Anna Delvey) was imprisoned for scamming her way to the top of New York high society by pretending to be a German heiress with a £60m fortune. She may have worn Alexander Wang outfits but her ‘ratty’ hair with split ends betrayed her. In the words of one commentator: “No real heiress would be seen dead without immaculately coiffured hair.”

These two cases illustrate the importance of hair to the staging of the self. Hair can be cut, coloured, curled, braided, knotted, crimped, twisted, straightened, backcombed, teased, moisturised, oiled, gelled, sprayed, shaved and wrapped. People wear wigs, weaves, hairpieces and extensions; they cover their hair with scarfs and hijabs, taqiyahs and yarmulkes.

A model sports an afro in Harlem, 1968
A model sports an afro in Harlem, 1968. The Black is Beautiful movement encouraged African Americans to stop straightening their hair. (Image by Shutterstock)

Hair is personal, but it is also a highly visible cultural artefact. In Victorian society, it was taken for granted that hair conveyed social and emotional messages. It is hard to find a Victorian novel that does not linger on its characters’ hair. A lock of hair encased in a locket or ring was a powerful relic, creating binding connections between lovers.

Aesthetic judgments about hair are fundamentally political. Slaves, prisoners of war and female collaborators are routinely shaved as a form of dehumanisation. In the first decade of the 20th century, Madam CJ Walker became one of the first African American female millionaires in the United States by marketing hair softeners to African American women; decades later, the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement repudiated such products. During the 1968 protests against the Miss America pageant, feminists not only threw bras and girdles into the Freedom Trash Can, but wigs, hair-curlers and false eyelashes as well.

Today, schools routinely apply rules that stigmatise black hairstyles. As recently as July 2019, California became the first US state to ban discrimination over natural hairstyles. Hair remains a system of power.


7

How eyes reflected the world

From ancient times to popular self-help books today, eyes have been viewed as ‘windows to the soul’. They are profoundly mythological, metaphorical and historical. There are the divine eyes of the Egyptians; the Greek evil eye; the Hindu God of Destruction, Shiva, who has a terrifying third eye in his forehead “whose glance renders the world to cinders”.

There are huge cultural variabilities in eyes. In the west, honesty is reflected in “looking in the eye”, an act that is considered impolite in Japan and among Australian and Canadian First Peoples. Indeed, judgments made about eyes have been incredibly harmful to indigenous peoples: for example, invaders regarded Aboriginal peoples’ failure to make eye contact as proof of their shiftiness.

A praying woman looks to the heavens in a painting from 1879
A praying woman looks to the heavens in a painting from 1879. Sir Charles Bell argued that eyes had been designed to be “indicative of the higher and holier emotions”. (Image by Alamy)

In Britain, Victorians considered the body to be the location of the human essence – and eyes played a dominant role in their assessments. One of the most prominent proponents was Sir Charles Bell. In his The Anatomy and Philosophy of the Expression as Connected with the Fine Arts (1806), he argued that human eyes had been designed to be “indicative of the higher and holier emotions” that “distinguish man from brutes”. Thus, when people were “wrapt in devotional feelings”, their eyes instinctively looked upwards to the heavens. Bell admitted that “the savage” might not always believe in God, but even they raised their eyes “to the canopy of the sky” when “praying for rice and yams”. It was “an action neither taught nor acquired”. Anatomy bore a divine stamp.

Invaders regarded Aboriginal peoples’ failure to make eye contact as proof of their shiftiness

Bell’s reflections were highly influential – not least, in the development in Victorian Britain of physiognomy (the practice of assessing a person’s character from their outer appearance, especially the face). Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation meant people had to find a way to quickly assess the character of a large number of strangers. This was the promise of physiognomy. As one physiognomist put it: “When our stock of expressions are exhausted, we have recourse to the silent eloquence of the eyes, which, freed from the shackles of grammatical rules, express with one look, what numerous and complicated sentences would have failed to unfold.” In this reading, the eyes never deceived.

But, what if the eyes did lie? From the late 19th century, eyes – their contours, symmetry, ridges, creases and crinkles – could be changed. Cosmetic surgery was premised on the assumption that the external representation of the self was distorted: work was required to ensure a correct match between a person’s exterior and interior. As one cosmetic surgeon quipped, facial surgery “can turn an eyesore into an eyeful. It can turn someone’s glance into a gaze.” Eyes not only view the world, they also reflect it.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London. Find out more about her Gresham College Lecture series on the history of the body, and listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of the eye on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine